Today is the birthday of poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator Nikki Giovanni. She’s currently an English professor at Virginia Tech, and has authored over twenty collections of poetry, children’s books, and many other works. She isn’t much of a beer drinker, sad to say. But her mother apparently was, and that’s what she wrote a story about: honoring her mother by searching out what she believed was one of the best beers around, Samuel Adams’ Utopia [sic].
Curiously, even though her story was printed in a prominent magazine and then later collected into a book, meaning editors and copy people presumably poured over it, nobody noticed that Utopia was not the actual name of the beer that was so central to the story. The actual name of the beer, of course, is Utopias. It’s possible it was by design, and I can see a scenario where the “s” was left off to give the phrase “chasing utopia” more meaning. That gaffe aside — if indeed it was one — it’s still an interesting story.
When Giovanni’s mother passed away, Nikki Giovanni decided drinking wine, which she preferred, wouldn’t do. But she also didn’t think that the pedestrian beers that her mother favored wouldn’t quite pay the proper respect, and she decided to find out what was the best beer in the world, and decided for her purposes that it was Utopias, and then wrote about the experience of trying to find a bottle for the July 2011 issue of Poetry Magazine.
Michel Martin interviewed Nikki Giovanni on NPR in early 2014, about her new book, and the Chasing Utopia story:
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST: We start today with the award-winning writer Nikki Giovanni. She’s one of the best-known and most celebrated poets of our time. She’s known for her accessible and beautiful writing about home, family, friends and even food. Nikki Giovanni is the university distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech. She’s also the author of 28 books. Her latest “Chasing Utopia” is a combination of essays and poetry. I spoke with her when the book was first published last year, and she began by telling me how she chose the title “Chasing Utopia.”
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, it really is that my mom died now in 2005. And so it’s been a while, but, you know, losing your mother, even though it’s the right order of things, is sad. I was a mother’s child. And I stayed very, very sad. And I finally said, you know, Nikki, you have to get out of this. And mommy, every day — we knew that mommy was dying when she said no she didn’t want a beer because every day of her life, she drank a beer. And so I said to myself, well, I’m missing mommy, why don’t I have a beer? But I really — I hate to say it, Michel, I just don’t like beer. And so it was like, OK, if you’re going to drink a beer, then you ought to drink the number one beer in the world. So I went and looked it up. Well, it turns out it’s Utopias, which is actually a beer by Sam Adams. So I called a man at my local store, Keith (ph), and he said, Nikki, we never get Utopias. You know, we’re a small market, they never sell us any Utopias. Well, I started to do what I do when things don’t go well. I just started to complain. You know, everybody starts going – why can’t I find a Utopias? And I happened to be on NPR actually, and the guy who makes Utopias heard it. And he actually sent it to me. But in the meantime, I had been to a government agency. I’ve been every place, you know, and everybody was like, oh, you’ll find utopia. And I was like, no, it’s a beer for Christ’s sake. So it’s been really fun learning about beers, and it makes me smile because I think of my mother. And I know that she’s sitting in heaven, you know, kicking back. She’s a Bud Light person.
MARTIN: She’s a Bud Light — not even a Utopias? What?
GIOVANNI: No. She couldn’t afford Utopias.
MARTIN: Maybe her tastes will change in heaven. Would your mom have enjoyed Utopia, or would that be too rich for her blood?
GIOVANNI: Oh, no. Mommy would’ve enjoyed it. Mommy enjoyed anything. But, you know, I could take my mother a glass of water and she would – and that’s what I loved about her. She would like, oh, I’ve never had water this good. What did you do to the water? You know, my mother always made me feel incredibly competent. And I don’t think anybody else has taken that place in my life actually.
Here’s the story itself, from the Poetry Foundation website:
Thanks to social networking, G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” has recently been given wide, if undeserved, circulation; anyone who consults the Poetry Foundation’s online poetry archive will find his claim not to be true. Hoping to disprove any larger point he may have been making, however, we asked several poets to mix memory and desire — for food — in the pieces that follow. Bon appetit!
So here is the actual story. I was bored. Bored even though I had the privilege of interviewing Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space, who said she pursued a degree in physics and also became a medical doctor to keep her mind occupied. Mae’s iq must be nine hundred and fifty-five or thereabouts. I asked: “How do you keep from being bored?”
And she replied: “A friend of my father’s once told me ‘If you’re bored you’re not paying attention.’”
So I said: “Beer.”
We are foodies, my family and I. My grandmother was an extraordinary cook. Her miniature Parker House rolls have been known to float the roof off a flooded house in hurricane season. Grandpapa made pineapple ice cream so rich and creamy, with those surprising chunks that burst with citrusy flavor. My sister, Gary Ann, made spring rolls so perfectly the Chinese complained to the State Department, and my Aunt fries chicken just short of burning that has been known to make the Colonel denounce his own kfc. Mommy was the best bean cooker in this world—and still is, I’m sure, in the next. I do a pretty swell pot roast myself. We are, in other words, dangerous when it comes to food.
Mommy also liked pig feet. Boiled. Not pickled.
I was sad when Mommy died. Then six weeks later Gary Ann died. Then my Aunt Ann. I tried to find a way to bring them back.
Mommy drank Miller Genuine Draft. Gary Ann drank Bud Light. Not me. What did I have in common with those guys on tv who were throwing a football around and looking just shy of fat? Nothing. They bored me. If it was going to be beer, I needed to learn something.
Going through books, I came across Utopia. Sam Adams. The number one beer in the world. Having always been a fan of start at the top, I called my local beer store. “I’d like to order a Utopia, please.” Thinking this would be easy.
“No Way,” Keith said. “We never get that!”
ok. I called Bounty Hunter. They have everything. That’s where I bought my Justice Series: Blind Justice, Frontier Justice, Poetic Justice. Great red wines.
“No, ma’am, we don’t sell beer.”
Utopia is only on a special allotment to Canada, where it is sold as a “Special Brew.” If I could just get to Canada, I could find my Utopia. But, dadgummit, the tsa would take it from me, claiming it was over three ounces. I’d be doggone if I would provide that group with Utopia. Never. Never. No Canada for me.
Samuel Adams’s Utopia is only brewed every other year. There will be a batch coming out this year, but it goes really quickly. There are folk who work at the Sam Adams Brewery just to be able to smell it, and I have heard, though I doubt that it’s true, that you are strip-searched when you leave work during Utopia season. Once, they say, someone belched and was immediately arrested.
Utopia is incredibly special, is the number one beer in the world because the aroma alone is worth the price. Can a beer be “chewy” while at the same time smooth as silk? Can a beer make you feel like a queen while bringing out your libido, making you want to howl? Indeed it can. Utopia makes you want a Swan for your Leda. A Lancelot for your Guinevere. A boiled pig foot for your low-down blues. Special? Are your first pair of stockings special? Is the first time your Mom let you wear lipstick special? Is your first kiss special? It’s Utopia.
But here is the happy part. I am a poet. I occasionally get invited to speak at Important Government Agencies. I was thrilled. Sure, someone will say: Why would you, a poet, a rebel, you who hate the tsa and think railroads should make a big comeback, you who think modern wars are stupid and unworthy—why would you speak for an Important Government Agency? Well, for one thing, I am an American. So government, whether I like it or not, R Me. For another thing, I know they have the world’s best computers. I was charming. I was funny. I was very nice and a good citizen. I wanted an illegal favor.
“Please, sir,” said I, “can you find Utopia?”
“Of course, little lady,” said the Director. “It’s in your heart and mind.” He smiled a lovely smile and patted me on my shoulder. Not wanting to appear to correct him, I smiled the smile of the defeated. And waited for him to leave. I asked his assistant.
“I think,” he pontificated, “it is in your soul. Search deep and you will find it.”
I knew I needed someone of color. Finally an older man, grey hair cut short, came by. “Please excuse me,” I said, “I’m trying to find Utopia. Can you help?”
“Why sure,” he said “as soon as I can find a safe computer.” We moved into another room and he made me stand way away from him so that I could not see the screen. He pulled up a website. “Here you go.” And he was right. “I can’t buy it as it’s against the rules, but get someone else to go to this site. I hear it’s a great beer. At $350 a pint, it ought to be.”
And now that I’ve found Utopia, I am at peace. I have Utopia, and if I were Egyptian I would be buried with it. I use it to start conversations and make friends. It is not for mortals. Or Americans. Utopia is for the gods.
The above piece was included in her latest collection of poems,
also entitled Chasing Utopia, published in 2013.